I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Incoherent World of Arne Duncan, Part V

Arne Duncan's interview with Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger is a fascinating - and dispiriting - journey into the brain of the US Secretary of Education. I'm breaking down this fantastic voyage into a series of posts:
  • Part I: Duncan's signature program, Race To The Top, has little evidence to back it up.
  • Part II: The real legacy of Duncan, Rhee, and Klein.
  • Part III: Arne has a lot to learn about what makes teachers tick.
  • Part IV: Duncan's totally befuddled thoughts about testing.
And now we come to a truly disturbing moment, where Arne Duncan says perhaps the stupidest thing I've ever heard out of the mouth of an education policy maker:
Q. We hear a lot that the root problem is poverty, not schools. But how does performance vary among poor kids? Do poor minority kids in Boston do better than those in Atlanta?
A. Poor kids in Massachusetts are doing dramatically better than poor kids in other states.
Q. What does that tell you?
A. That poverty is not destiny. There are some folks who feel you have to end poverty to fix education. I believe you have to fix education to end poverty.
Oh, sweet lord. My sweet, sweet lord. That is so dumb on so many levels. It is a tesseract of idiocy; it's multi-dimensionally stupid.

Yes, Mr. Duncan, poor kids in Massachusetts do much better than poor kids in other states. You can compare the scores of different states on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) using this cool comparison tool. Just choose the test you want to see and compare states (don't bother with the 12th Grade tests - they're useless. Stick with 4th and 8th Grades).

But then, just for fun, compare the scores of kids in Massachusetts who aren't in poverty. Guess what?

The kids who aren't poor in Massachusetts are at the top of the nation as well! Massachusetts is generally recognized as having one of the best, if not the best, state-wide school systems in the nation. The poor kids are well above many other states' poor kids; the not-poor kids are well above many other states' not-poor kids.

Doesn't that tell you something? Are you starting to catch on?

No? Well, let me make it even simpler for you then. In Massachusetts, in every test, by every measure, children who are in poverty, on average, do considerably worse than children who are not in poverty.

But not just in Massachusetts: in every state in the country, children who are economically disadvantaged have worse educational outcomes than children who do not live in poverty. And that's not just limited to the United States; in fact, in every country in the world, poor children produce worse test scores than wealthier children.

You can use any test you want: SAT, ACT, PISA, IQ, NAEP... all will show that socio-economic status is correlated to scores. Are there outliers? Of course. Can poor children still learn? Of course. Should we stop trying to make the schools better in the face of poverty? Of course not.

But chanting "poverty is not destiny" is a form of self-delusion that is as offensive as it is ignorant. In every state and in every country and on every test, poverty matters. It is idiotic to think that, just because some poor children do better in one state than some poor children in another, we should dismiss outright the idea that maybe poverty leads to bad educational outcomes.

"But causation is not correlation!" shouts the reformy type! "It's not poverty that's leading to bad education outcomes; it's the bad schools that are leading to poverty!"

Really? You really want to go with that answer? Really?

When every state in the nation and every country in the world has a gap between it's wealthiest and poorest children, regardless of how they structure their schools? When we know there are huge cognitive gaps between wealthier and poorer pre-school children?

You really think more charter schools and firing teachers based on test scores is the answer to a problem that is demonstrable even before children enter school? Really?

Well, Arne Duncan might believe you, but no one who knows anything about education will. Instead, those people will keep making the case that economic opportunity and community reinvestment and universal health care and living wages and alleviating income inequity will do far, far more to raise test scores than de-unionization or "choice" ever could.

Our debate about the lives of children in America has come completely off the rails - largely because it's a debate dominated by foolish people like Arne Duncan. I'm not sure if I can take much more of his nonsense, but there's at least one more thing I want to address in the interview: stand by.


james boutin said...

The sad thing is, taken out of context, I'm sure that conversation will convince many people that Duncan is correct in his assessment.

tjmertz said...

The sad thing is, it already has. I sat in more than a couple Wisconsin legislative committee's where Massachusetts did this or did that was used as the rationale for some "reform" or another. The latest is the "higher cut scores are better" fallacy, so WI now maps cut scores to NAEP and teacher bashers and deformers have a new way of saying bad things about public education.